Dark Waters is a formidable fucking film. What could have been a paint-by-numbers corporate corruption legal thriller assumes, in the hands of Todd Haynes, moral complexity and emotional directness.
The film tells the true story of corporate lawyer Rob Billott (Mark Ruffalo), who despite working as a partner for a practice that defends chemical companies, mounts a legal fight spanning decades against the unethical and devastating actions of DuPont chemical company. The screenplay, from Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, follows the dot points of this sort of film to a tee – there’s a sequence of small victories and huge defeats on the way to a rousing triumph, frequently interrupted by legal technicalities, an aura of imminent but unrealised danger, and of course there’s the put-upon wife (Anne Hathaway as Rob’s wife, Sarah).
From the screenplay alone, Haynes – known for queer-tinged arthouse and outside art – seems like an odd choice to adapt such a conventional concept. For whatever reason he was chosen, I’m glad he was, because he takes what could’ve been another forgettable ‘fight for justice’ flick – think the recent Just Mercy – and strips away its conventional trappings for a core of pain and purpose. Though structured like a procedural, Haynes persistently focuses on his characters rather than the increasingly complex legal particulars. More than that, Dark Waters interrogates the clash between corporate values and America’s espoused Christian ideology with astonishing sophistication.
Todd Haynes and Christian films isn’t an association I would’ve expected, especially with modern-day ‘Christian films’ mostly limited to pandering pablum catering to evangelical audiences with oppression fantasies. Yet Dark Waters is Christian to its core. It frequently presents Christian accoutrements to the audience to remind them of the ubiquity of the faith in American life. Rob’s co-workers at the Taft, Stettinius & Hollister firm don’t swear; they exclaim “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” The put-upon farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) who sparks Rob’s exploration into DuPont is seen going to Church; there’s even a discussion about Mary Magdalene over the Billott breakfast table.
Thing is, in most American films, that sort of Christian lip-service is about as far as it goes. Maybe the protagonist gets down on their knees and prays in a moment of crisis or something, but the moral framework of the religion – as opposed to its deeply, arguably fatally flawed institutions – isn’t given much attention. Haynes instead choices to specifically and regularly contrast corporate culture with Christian ethics …and it’s not, as you’d expect, a flattering comparison. Rob’s initial choice to go out to visit Wilbur’s farm against the wishes of his firm – a Good Samaritan gesture if I’d ever seen one – is quickly dismissed as insufficient if it’s not paired with a genuine attempt to achieve change.
Where so many films of this nature centre corruption on a couple of individuals (acknowledging they represent a whole system, but subverting that intended message nonetheless), Dark Waters resolutely avoids placing the blame at the feet of any given DuPont representative. Instead, it turns its gaze on the people who resist the opportunities to rectify the situation; many of Rob’s colleagues are reluctant to rock the boat – understandably, given the potential negative impact of the firm’s professional reputation and economic bottom line – but the film acidly reveals how such selfishness clashes against their espoused faith. The capitalistic systems here might be evil, but – to paraphrase the famous quote – that evil can only occur if good people are content to do nothing.
Beyond Dark Waters’ moving and thoughtful examination of morality, it’s simply an incredibly effective film. Haynes adapts the craft that made films like Far From Heaven, Carol and Safe so powerful; though the film is persistently swathed in an overcast, gloomy aesthetic, there are astounding images here (thanks in large part to cinematographer Edward Lachman). Simple images – a cow’s jaw with blackened teeth encased in foil, Hathaway illuminated by the thinnest ray of incandescent light, an office towering with intimidating piles of paperwork – are both beautiful and arresting. There’s a tight control of genre, too; we ease from environmental horror to legal thriller to domestic drama without the transitions ever feeling jarring.
For me, the film is near flawless. Its primary flaw is Anne Hathaway; she’s given an unfortunate role to play as the nagging wife, and can’t manage to elevate the material beyond cliché. This seems to be an unfixable problem for these sort of films; to elide the (invariably male) protagonist’s family life altogether, or present their family as purely supportive despite the obvious personal toll would be a mistake, surely. But it’s so unsatisfying to see female roles so consistently relegated to another obstacle in our hero’s fight for justice; though Haynes solves most of the problems that plague this sub-genre, this is one he’s unable to rectify.
Honestly, though, this minor complaint aside – I found Dark Waters to be a straight-up masterpiece. It’s tense and brilliantly paced, combining moving character moments with perfectly plotted twists and turns. It’s a film that understands that villainy comes not from a sneering CEO invested only in racism, but from a labyrinthine system – legal, economic, political – built up over years to prioritise profit over people. It’s a film that achieving justice requires leveraging privilege, persistence, a lot of good luck and – above all – the determination to do what’s right even when everyone is telling you it’s wrong.